The Saturday night crowd in Peckham’s trendy Blenheim Grove must have wondered what on earth was happening in the Me’lange hair salon. Usually full of people having their hair braided, nails done or feet pedicured, this Saturday instead saw the official opening of the ‘Hair looms’ exhibition of photographs celebrating the natural beauty of black hair.
Melissa Jo Smith, director of ‘Illuminated Arts’ generated the project in a response to the growing concerns about the misconceptions around black hair styling traditions, and perceived unfairness particularly within the education system where students of both sexes are often unfairly penalised for wearing traditional plaited or braided hairstyles or having large afro’s, whereas long or extreme European hairstyles are often disregarded.
Robert Taylor, whose work is held in major collections such as the National Portrait gallery and the V&A, has worked with local people within the salon to explore the forms and effects of natural black hair styling. The resulting images are forceful in their natural effervescence and character with an immediacy that belies the thoughtful approach he has taken to presenting real down-to-earth people. It is this down to earth aspect of the exhibition that I loved; Simple black and white images about hair, being shown in a vibrant and bustling hair salon. If you have ever visited Peckham High Street (which I thoroughly recommend) and it’s side streets you will know that these salons are true social hubs for the local community. The mere fact that combing and plaiting black hair can take hours to achieve, necessitates a real connection with the people around you in the salon. None of that “would you like a coffee and a copy of Vogue to read whilst your hair is being cut?” Here you find children, friends and family hanging out, gossiping and generally making themselves at home whiling away the hours of intricate styling. The heady fumes of nail polishes, steam treatments for hair and a myriad of styling products pervades the air as we take in the photography and note the pride of all concerned in this exhibition. Mr Taylor is being interviewed, comfy rococo sofas are drawn up for a panel discussion, a little girl has one half of her head a mass of downy curls whilst the hairdresser plaits it into a beautiful swirl around her head. As the photographs are interspersed between the salon’s mirrors and styling tools.
Saltfish fritters and sticky lemon cake were served with Carribean fruit cocktail punch, and we settled down to a discussion on the imprtance of the traditions of black hair, it’s cultural identity in the modern world and the political statements integral in the changing trends in Black hair styling over the decades. The debate was sparked by a video of archive footage of Britains first recognised black hairdresser Carmen England in the 1940’s. It was here that the attitude to ‘alien’ black hair became apparent as the narrator refers to ‘secret oils’ and hot combing required to achieve a stereotypical 1940’s hairdo! The Hair loom exhibition’s visitors were variously horrified, indignant and amused by this glimpse into hairderssing history. Debate ranged from the inevitable references to slavery traditions, today’s ‘Black lives matter’ campaign and the practicalities of nurturing a healthy head of afro hair. Overall the consensus accross the panel was that the overwhelming pressures on modern women to conform to stereotypical straight, Eurocentric and treated hair are too heavy to ignore for the majority of women.
The irony of assosciations with slavery and poverty were not lost on me during the discussions about hair extensions and wigs, with the current concerns over the ethics of real human hair extensions. “Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. As one importer, based in Ukraine, told the New York Times recently: “They are not doing it for fun. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair.” More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman’s hair, holding her down and cutting it off.” Homa Khaleeli, The Guardian 2012
“Historically hair was very important in Africa and was, in many tribes, a way to show one’s status, identity, religion, and ancestry. The importance of hair in determining one’s status became even more apparent during slavery in the United States as black women with a kinky hair texture had to work in the fields while those with a more Caucasian- like hair texture were house slaves (Robinson, 2011; Lester, 2000). However, despite their looser hair texture, house enslaved Africans still had to take a step further in order to be presentable as white masters had control over them and forced them to have an image as close to white as possible (Thompson, 2008).
Therefore, emulating white standards of beauty for body image and particularly for hair meant having more status, the possibility to pass as white, become free and even survival in some instances (Patton, 2006). The mixed children from slave masters had looser, straighter and softer hair considered “good hair”, which added to the pressure African Americans experienced to appear as white as they could (Tate, 2007). That helps understand how black people’s need to alter their natural hair came about and still persists in our times.
The Politics of Black Womens’ Hair. Vanessa King & Dieynaba Niabaly 2013
Minnesota State University, Mankato
The event was finished of by a piece of traditional african dance by Marta de Sousa of the Nzinga dance company, based in Forest Hill.
Politics aside, the striking images in this exhibition are worth a look, you shouldn’t expect an uninterrupted view as in a standard gallery setting, but enjoy the atmosphere and banter as you do!